Spark, Muriel: The Driver’s Seat and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

After some long books, we had two short (but major) novels to read this month. Muriel Spark was recently placed by a Times survey in the eighth position among the top fifty British writers of the 20th century. This is her centenary year, celebrated at the National Library of Scotland by an exhibition, The International Style of Muriel Spark (until 13 May 2018), which some of the group had visited. (There will also be a dramatisation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by David Harrower, at the Donmar Warehouse, London from 4 June to 28 July.)

The proposer gave a full and informative account of Spark’s life and career. Born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 in a liberal-minded family, the daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish father and an English mother, she attended the fee-paying James Gillespie’s School. Not wanting to go to university, she taught English and worked as a secretary before marrying Sidney Oswald Spark, 13 years her senior, with whom she moved to Southern Rhodesia. Her marriage was an unhappy one, as were her relations with her one son, but although she left her husband, she was obliged by the war to stay in Rhodesia until 1944. Returning to Britain, she worked as administrator and editor at the Poetry Society in London (where she was involved in some fierce rows). It was only in 1951 that she made her debut as a fiction writer, winning the Observer short story prize for her story ‘The Seraph and the Zambezi’. Thereafter she produced a steady stream of highly acclaimed novels, moving first to New York and then to Tuscany, where she lived with her friend Penelope Jardine until 2008. She had converted to Catholicism in her 30s (there was later a lot of discussion of her religious position in relation to the Calvinism of her childhood). She was an obsessive hoarder of documents, many of them now in the National Library. Fond of cats, she liked to compare herself to a cat.

There were written comments from three members of the group who had to be absent, including a detailed discussion of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (PMJB) – these are integrated into the account that follows.

PMJB is the most famous of Spark’s novels (largely because of the film version with Maggie Smith), but The Driver’s Seat (DS) was reportedly her own favourite. Inevitably the discussion centred on PMJB, which was much better known – though some members were reading it for the first time, having previously seen the film (Maggie Smith version).

Everyone agreed about the quality of Spark’s writing, its brevity, unexpectedness, the brilliant, often cynical turns of  phrase – you feel you are in good hands when you start one of her novels. As one member said, ‘a confident, poised writer at the height of her powers’. Spark saw herself as a poet (the word is on her gravestone), won a poetry prize at the age of 14, and continued to write poetry – her prose shows a poet’s sense of language. There was some discussion as to whether it came across as spontaneous writing; this was the impression it left with some readers – as if she wrote quickly and didn’t revise – but others felt that we were dealing with a more deliberate strategy, as seen in certain types of repetition, or in the highly worked ending of DS.

Both novels also showed a very personal way of dealing with time. In both there are repeated ‘flash-forwards’ to an ending which is more dramatic, or violent, or tragic than the early scenes. Spark is not so much aiming to create suspense as to suggest, (especially in PMJB) the impact of passing time. In DS this treatment of time raises troubling questions about free will and determinism – it was suggested that the end, with its repetition of ‘fear and pity, pity and fear’, is an echo of classical tragedy, where fate and action are intertwined.

The discuss of PMJB inevitably centred on the figure of Miss Brodie , ‘an intriguing mixture of free thinking and convention’ and the puzzles she sets the reader. Impressions were inevitably influenced by the memory of Maggie Smith’s brilliant performance in the 1969 film (about which Muriel Spark is said to have had mixed feelings)  On the one hand she is a force of life, set against the stifling Calvinist atmosphere of a certain Edinburgh (as represented by the well-named Miss Gaunt); she fascinates her girls, opens up their minds to history, art and literature (in her own idiosyncratic way), marking some of them for life. But in exerting such a strong influence on them, in trying for instance to make Jenny her surrogate lover for Teddy Lloyd, she can be seen as a malevolent figure, perhaps Satanic – and she herself insists on her link with the double-faced Deacon Brodie, rebel and reprobate. It was remarked that she is in a line of teacher figures in literature, which also includes figures in Alan Bennett’s The History Man and the film Dead Poets’ Society. Several of the group remembered similarly charismatic teachers from their schooldays. In the words of one of us, heaven help us if we have teachers like this!’

If Jean Brodie is Satan, she is also Christ, betrayed by one of her disciples. Why does Sandy betray her mentor? There were several suggestions: envy (the desire to cut down the tallest poppy), religious feeling (like Muriel Spark, Sandy is converted to Catholicism), perhaps politics. It was noted that we get always a child’s-eye vision of the teacher, a subject of fascination, a mystery. The author doesn’t tell us what to think.

An important aspect of the book was the depiction of Edinburgh in the 30s, and more generally of inter-war Europe. Edinburgh is depicted – yet again – as a place of contradictions, douce but also harsh; there was some doubt about whether Miss Brodie’s walk through the Old Town, with its depiction of poverty, hardship and menace, was really integrated into the book. Another point of difference was whether this could be called a feminist novel – certainly it showed the constraints weighing on women at the time (no married women allowed to teach, for instance), but was Miss Brodie a feminist heroine?

One question occupied many of us: the relation between the novel and Muriel Spark’s own experience. In the discussion there were quite a few reminiscences of school days. The Marcia Blaine School for Girls is obviously based on James Gillespie’s School , and we know that Miss Brodie is modelled on Spark’s teacher Christina Kay, though in several respects she is different – younger, an admirer of Hitler etc. For an account of Miss Kay, see the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2008) – the forthcoming second edition will also contain an entry for Muriel Spark.

On The Driver’s Seat, opinion was more divided. It was seen as ‘mad’ and ‘chaotic’, but also fascinating. The proposer indicated that the story was based on a newspaper account of a real incident in Italy. It is like a detective story, though in Spark’s words not a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘whydunnit’ in which the end is foreshadowed throughout the story but never really explained. We noticed that the heroine Lise is unfailingly seen from the outside, with no direct access to her thoughts and feelings – just her words and actions, her facial expressions and body movements. Clues are scattered around – maddeningly, for some – and the final murder is announced well in advance; it becomes clear that, with her outlandish costume and disconcerting behaviour, Lise wants to make herself a murder victim – but why? The book’s title raises the question of control and direction – is Lise in the driver’s seat? Or if not her, who? The novel seems to suggest a wild, unpredictable world waiting to engulf ‘normaility’.  But in spite of the sinister tone and the improbable story, most of us enjoyed it, the deadpan and funny description of the absurdity of character and action. Like all Spark’s novels it is short, and repays rereading.

Apart from Edinburgh reminiscences, discussion stuck pretty much to the texts – clearly a good choice for the programme. One critical note – to be conveyed to the publisher? – the unsuitable covers for both the novels in the Penguin editions – as in their current Simenon series, a taste for pictures of headless women. Better go for the centenary Muriel Spark edition produced by Birlinn of Edinburgh.